Put the customer first, then success will follow

O2’s 21 million customers makes it the biggest telecoms company in the UK. Larger, as we learned last week, than its former parent BT (19.4 million landlines). There is no doubt that, like all businesses, O2 faces its own set of challenges right now – our news story on page 4 alone confirms that. But what’s interesting is the nature of O2’s structure as a business and how it equips the senior management to deal with such challenges. For O2 is led, truly led, by marketers.

Marketing director Sally Cowdry and customer director Tim Sefton sit on the board, and take responsibility for O2’s P&Ls. They sit alongside chief executive Ronan Dunne who, to all intents and purposes, might as well be another marketer considering his view that everything should be built around the customer. This team has worked together since the company was spun out of BT. They
claim they knew even then that the power of the brand and its “Essential for Life” positioning meant they would not be locked into just one business sector for ever.

Sure enough, as we revealed in our news pages a fortnight ago, O2 now plans to become a “connectivity service brand” in areas such as healthcare and education as well as financial services with its O2 Money brand that launched this summer. In our cover story (p16) Dunne, Cowdry, Sefton and their colleague Shadi Halliwell, head of sponsorship and advertising, all cast light on what other marketers should consider before taking their own businesses on such bold steps towards growth in the future.

As I said earlier, this is a company with challenges. It recently lost the exclusive right to sell the iPhone, which will surely impact on Christmas sales. It will lose the number one spot in the UK mobile operator market if the Orange and T-Mobile merger goes ahead. It has some tough decisions to make regarding headcount in the coming weeks. But if anything, our cover story illustrates that the sole criterion it will adopt in order to make the right decision each time is: “what is good for the customer”.

A few days ago I was talking to an executive from a media agency who was commenting on the structure of a potential client whose work he had pitched for, saying how hard it would be to work for the brand if he won the business. I told him about the structure of the business at O2. His reply? “Everybody says data is increasing in significance but O2 is one of the few companies using data to help the customer rather than the business.” That alone could be the most significant factor in whether O2 succeeds or fails in its plan to stretch the brand.

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